[ditty_news_ticker id="27897"] So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy? - Orthodox Christian Laity

So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy?

So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy?

Fr. Steven C. Salaris, MDiv, PhD

Source: Orthodoxy Today

By Fr. Steven C. Salaris

So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy?

Last year, I attended a clergy gathering where we had several “workshops” discussing the importance of Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF), ministry to college students, and what I call “The 60%.” This term derives from a recent study revealing that 60% of college students never return to church after college. This sad data applies to Orthodox Christians, too. When discussing this with others, my scientific brain (I’m a former biology professor) wanted data to back up the claim. I wanted to identify the reasons why our youth leave. Bad idea! I felt like a McCain supporter at an Obama rally! No one wanted to discuss the issues. It was easier to lament about the symptoms than to address the cause(s) head on. There was also a lot of finger-pointing at those workshops; however, when you point a finger at someone, three fingers point back at you!

So why do 60% of our college youth leave Orthodoxy? This is a difficult question to answer. It requires some serious scientific investigation. In the discussion that follows, I have implemented the scientific method of which I am so familiar. After spending time making observations and asking some tough questions, I have come up with several hypotheses. Some will apply specifically to our Orthodox Church, others will apply to Christian churches in general. Most of the hypotheses are corollaries to the warning God gave in Exodus, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments” (20:5b-6). (We would do well preaching about that verse more!). Another hypothesis is related to how we educate our youth. Here are my hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1: Linguistic and cultural ghettos that masquerade as “Churches” are contributing to “The 60%”

Orthodoxy has been in America for over 200 years. Yet too often our parishes live with the notion that the Church’s primary function is to be an ethnic preservation society. Far too many people go to church not to encounter Christ, the Son of the living God, but to talk in or listen to foreign languages and eat ethnic foods. Why do we attempt to spiritually raise our children in an atmosphere of dead liturgical languages and the equally dead cultures from which they came? Gee, Toto, we’re not in Byzantium (or Tsarist Russia) anymore!

Be honest, we worship in dead liturgical languages that laity, chanters, priests, and bishops do not understand. Our insistence on using these languages is like keeping a body alive on a ventilator long after brain death has occurred. Nonetheless, we continue to offer incense to the idol of “spiritual language” while not gaining a substantive understanding from what we hear. Sure, sending our children to Arabic/Greek/Russian school might make grandma happy, but they will still be unable to understand the liturgical languages they hear in Church.

Even when we do use English, many Orthodox Churches speak in what I call “liturgical ebonics” – an old variant of Shakespearian English that uses “Thee, Thy, Thou, Thine” pronouns and archaic verb tenses. Imagine the relief our youth feel attending a non-Orthodox church service that uses proper modern English. Dost thou not get it that this silly talk edifieth not our children! Sts. Cyril and Methodius understood using the language of the people! The evangelists to the Alaskan Native American people understood it. Why don’t we?

Hypothesis 2: Enmity in our churches is contributing to “The 60%”

“Enmity” is a word that means “positive, active, and mutual hatred or ill will.” Churches are full of it! – including the Orthodox. It would be great if we hated evil, sin, and the devil; instead we hate each other. Jesus tells us that we are to love one another as he has loved us. Too often we fail. When we fail we are hypocrites. How can Johnny learn about Christian love when mom has not spoken to “that person” in the parish for fifteen years? Yes, mom says, Jesus teaches that we have to love our neighbor as ourselves and that we must forgive seventy times seven, but how dare “that person” change grandmother’s baklava recipe at the Church festival! Years ago, I stood in a food line at a Greek festival and watched two men of that parish cursing and yelling at each other while nearly coming to fisticuffs. Great witness for the Gospel, huh? Add to this parish splits, gossip, back-biting, the way personality disordered parishioners treat the priest, vituperative general assembly meetings, etc., is it any wonder that our youth flee once they are free?

Hypothesis 3: Lack of stewardship is contributing to “The 60%”

We don’t regard the Church as the pearl of great price or a treasure buried in a field. Instead we treat the Church like a street beggar. In many of our parishes, clergy and stewardship committees hold out their hands hoping (and begging) that parish families will pay their “minimum dues.” Why must I hear of parishes with hundreds of families that by mid-year don’t have enough money to pay the electric bill or the priest’s salary? Why must I hear about priests and their families who are expected to live in substandard housing, send their children to substandard schools, drive junk cars, and depend on food stamps? This is scandalous! Even worse, this is oftentimes expected by parishioners who are quite generous to themselves. Why do churches depend on endless fundraisers and festivals for income? The answer to these questions is simple: Too many parishioners do not value the Church. Once the message that the Church is valueless is internalized by our youth (don’t be fooled, it is internalized), they will eventually turn their back on the Church. Our children will seek something of more enduring value as determined by family and society. Isn’t that frightening?! We must pass on to our children, by our example, the principle that the Church is worth the stewardship of our time and talents above all else.

Hypothesis 4: Failed models of Christian education are contributing to “The 60%”

With all due respect to those that have worked so hard in Christian education, it is time we admit that our Protestant-derived models of Christian education have failed. Like us, the Catholics and Protestants also have their own 60%. If the current model for Christian education doesn’t work for them, it will not work for us. Christian youth come out of years of Sunday school and still don’t know the basics of their own faith. I know of students educated in Catholic schools that think the Holy Trinity is Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! I know Orthodox Christians who think that the Holy Trinity is God, Jesus, and Mary. An organic living knowledge and internalization of the Orthodox Christian faith cannot happen in 45 minutes on a Sunday by cutting and coloring paper doll clergy and iconostases. There was no Sunday School in the early Church and yet families – parents and children – were martyred together bearing witness to the Christian faith (read the life of the early second-century martyrs Sophia and her three children…if you dare). Perhaps a radical re-thinking and new approach to Christian education needs to be developed by those who specialize in the field.

Hypothesis 5: The lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is contributing to “The 60%”

The Church is like a fig tree with lots of leaves. The leaves are things we get passionate and obsessive about – icons, facial hair (on men), chanting, vestments, ethnic nationalism, calendars, choirs, rants about ecumenists and liberal deconstructionists, spirituality, pseudo-spirituality, and all the rest of the fodder that one can find on “Orthodox” blog sites. However, if the tree doesn’t bear fruit then it is doomed to whither. I am going to be bold and identify the “first fruits” of the Church as a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Some people might think that sounds a bit “Protestant,” but in fact it is entirely Orthodox. Our relationship with Jesus Christ is so deep, intimate, and personal, that He feeds us with this very own Body and Blood in the Eucharist (beginning for many of us when we are babies). That “first fruit,” that intense personal relationship with Christ, should then yield the fruits of repentance and spiritual growth in the lives of every Orthodox Christian. If we are unable to bear these “first fruits,” our youth and our Churches will wither.

What is next? In the scientific method, after making observations, asking questions, and developing a hypothesis comes experimentation where the hypothesis is rigorously tested. In this short article, I have only gone as far as formulating some hypotheses concerning “the 60%.” To go any further will require specialists in the Church to do the experiments and analyze the data. When all this is done, the conclusions will either support or reject the hypotheses. If, however, the appropriate studies do support the hypotheses, how will the Church respond – with action or apathy? The Lord says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Repentance starts with self-examination – I am calling for the Church to do just that here and now. If it is determined that something is wrong, then true repentance requires a change. If we respond with apathy, then the 60% phenomenon will continue and our sins will continue to be visited upon our children generation after generation until the Church is no more. If we respond with proper action and change based on love, prayer, grace, self-sacrifice, and joy, then Christ and His Church – the very kingdom of heaven – will be a seed planted in the good soil of our children’s hearts and souls that will grow and bear fruit one thousand-fold until “the 60%” is no more.

Fr. Steven C. Salaris, M.Div., Ph.D. is the pastor of All Saints of North America Antiochian Orthodox Christian Mission in Maryland Heights, Missouri.

Originally posted on March 1, 2009.



  1. We also need to not discount priests who are out of touch with young people and think that if we have a Sunday School or GOYA that the youth are being taken care of…how many priests teach Sunday School or at least drop in every now and then…
    The Language issue is also a big issue…one of my cousins took his girlfriend to Church with us.My mother asked her what she thought about it after the Liturgy and the girl replied “Oh it was lovely! Just like going to the opera!” They married and are now Episcopalian….who caused that?

  2. From my personal experience, I could not agree more with reason #1. I am ethnically Greek and Greek Orthodox, but as an American I obviously speak English first. My wife is not Greek and we don’t have a “Greek” household. When I go to a Greek orthodox church it feels almost like I am stepping into a foreign country. Why can’t I just go to a place where we worship and sing in the language that I speak evey day? The big Greek Orthodox church near us does use English in the liturgy, but everything culturally about the church revolves around Greek ethnicity and has nothing to do with religion per se. I want to send my kids to Sunday School but I don’t want to feel like I am sending them to a culturally foreign place. Aren’t there any Orthodox churches for English-speaking Americans?

    • Pauline Costianes on

      There are other Orthodox Churches in this country besides the Greeks, although they don’t often acknowledge it. I’m half-Greek, brought up Presbyterian, and at around age 15, had this sudden lightning bolt hit me regarding my heritage, The Orthodox parish in town was closed because (big surprise) the kids drifted away due to services being in medieval Bulgarian (old church slavonic). Luckily there was a parish in a nearby town that served many nationalities in ALL
      English and this was 1969. If it had been otherwise, I probably would have turned on my heel and left. So, go outside of the GOA and look for an OCA church or an Antiochian church that isn’t heavily Arabic and you’ll find what you need.

    • John Blackstone on

      Being an American who was not blessed with being born into a Greek Orthodox family, I must say that when I discovered the very wonderful and beautiful Greek culture in my city I embraced it for what it is. A very good, Christian culture. So long as there are Greek speaking people in these communities, there will continue to be a need to have the services in the language of the people, Greek and English. So long as there are Greek people’s in these communities there will continue to be a need to express who they are in Greek Festivals, etc., etc. There is nothing un-Christian about that. In fact, it would be un-Christian to try and force people to not be who they are. Yes, Christianity is multi-cultural. But Christians have never been told they are no longer Greek because they are Christian. What do we want to replace Greek culture with? American culture? What American culture? Crass Individualism? Blatant egotism? The endless seeking of riches and feeding of the ego? American culture is exactly the freedom of many cultures to be who they are, including speaking their own language. Let’s stop this business of blaming a culture or language for young people leaving the Church. Let’s place the blame where it belongs. Primarily a crass, anti-Christian individualism that is common to America.

      • Peter Yancey on

        John, Why can’t people express their culture outside the Church? There are lots of ethnic associations available for that. The local Greek parish where I live states on their website that their number one concern is “preserving their culture.” So much for witnessing the faith to the wider community. By the way, Christianity does force people to be other than what they are.

        • “Why can’t people express their culture outside the Church?”

          This is an excellent question. The answer: Their culture is an Orthodox one. The faith is an inextricable part of being Russian, Greek, Bulgraian, Antiochian, etc. This is a precious thing, and brings the daily life of The Church to people. It becomes an idol only when we fail to seek Christ, and fail to embrace those outside of said culture.

  3. Walter DuBlanica on

    I am a Russian Orthodox Christian. I understand your concerns. But mainline Protestant churches are also experiencing decline in membership as is the Catholic church. They have all been/are being replaced by the “banjo playing” fundamentalist churches who “have the answer to all your problems” The TV evangelicals are typical. Being an Orthodox Christian begins with a fear and awe of GOD. If you don’t have feel;ing, then go join one of the “banjo playing ” churches thay have “all the answers to your daily woes. Walter DuBlanica. My son -in -law is a Russian Orthodox priest.

  4. This is a fantastic article, and I couldn’t resist commenting. Fr. Steven, we made each others’ acquaintances quite some time ago– you probably don’t remember me. Most recently I attended your mission parish when Bishop Mark was still in the Antiochian Archdiocese. I respect you and I sincerely hope your mission continues to spiritually flourish. God grant it!

    I’m no scientist, I only have anecdotal data about what seems to work and what doesn’t.

    My first comment is “Amen.” Everyone, I think, can jump on the linguistic and cultural bandwagon very easily, since clearly it is a blasphemy to reduce the Body of the God-man, the Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church, to a cultural ghetto. Foreign languages have the potential to send the message: this is for us, and not for you. And yet I want to say at the same time that perhaps it is a Providential blessing, in the time when Western cultural decadence is at its heights, that the Light of the true faith comes packaged in cultural wrappings that can help us to recover the normal patterns of human existence ourselves. The special things that come through cultures transfigured by the Gospel can be a powerful spiritual weapon for just the thing your article addresses– the heavy attrition rates of our youth, after that idolized middle-class shibboleth: the college “education.”

    You’re absolutely right about the education models being a resounding failure. I taught Sunday school at an OCA parish for two years, and I quickly discovered that an hour of catechesis a week wasn’t enough to stem the tide of a home where Church and Christ were relegated to the Sunday-only department. I still remember hearing my middle-school student casually telling me that Roman Catholic communion “tastes different.” How we are failing our children!

    I think you’re spot on with the last hypothesis. The kids aren’t staying around because they’re honest– they’ve been made Greeks, Russians, Romanians, and Serbs, but not Christians. They never get to hear the solemn renunciations of Satan at the baptismal service that their godparents promised on their behalf. They don’t see a regular rhythm of prayer in the home, or fasting, or real repentant contrition over sins and mistakes. They couldn’t tell you the difference between an Epistle, an Apostle, or an “Apostol.”

    Fr. Steven, I must confess to you that I’ve been to many, many Orthodox parishes in my nine years as an Orthodox Christian. I have realized that my children have a much, much greater opportunity to develop truly Orthodox Christian souls in parishes where it is obvious that other people are taking God seriously. This is perhaps what I wanted to say the most. External things definitely are no substitute for the inward reality, but they point to them, they can be helpful indicators. When I see a priest with a long beard and a riassa, I see the eternal and unchanging truth of the Gospel. When I see that a woman covers her head in God’s temple, I think of the angels invisibly serving with us, on whose account the Apostle Paul gave that commandment. When the priest actually prepares a sermon instead of winging it, or when he decides to read to his flock an excellent sermon from the saints, I am reminded that others are taking God seriously, and that He deserves it from my own life and actions. When my spiritual father requires me to have fasted, have recently confessed, to be at peace with the people in my life, and to have prayed a rule before I partake of Holy Communion, I am put on notice of how special it is, how unique, how important. I realize that this is a continuum, that the Eucharist is medicine and not a reward, but failure to educate God’s people about how to get the most from the most pure mysteries– this seems to be a grave sin, and it leads to a lax “no-big-deal” sort of approach, rather than a life-altering encounter.

    You speak of the leaves on the fig tree, and I like the analogy. The leaves are not the fruit, but without leaves, as your scientific mind will readily acknowledge, the tree stands little chance of growing any! Furthermore, the leaves point to a healthy tree, not one blown about by the winds of change and modernistic laxity. I can’t help but be saddened when I see priests in business suits who go by nicknames… it doesn’t come off as “approachable” to me, or relevant. A business suit is good, if you’re a businessman. But a priest? Elder Paisios and countless other saints have said that the riassa is the “flag” of the Church of Christ, a reminder of the eternal truth of the Gospel.

    And maybe that’s why we don’t see many spiritual fruits on the American branch. Perhaps we have pruned away at the things we presumed to be cultural leaves but have inadvertently spilled out some of the grace-giving sap of real piety and heartfelt faith! Maybe our trees would not be so barren if we had retained more leaves.

    I’m 30, and found Orthodoxy in college, so I’m not quite an old fogie. But frankly, I consider it a privilege to worship God in the English of my forefathers, with Thee and Thou. Even a college student with little KJV fluency can easily understand why we might employ different words when addressing the Almighty, as opposed to a friend from biology class. To me the florid language is like the vestments– of course they’re unfamiliar, elaborate, and ornamented: they’re designed to get my attention.

    We know how idealism can affect us at a young age, before we have children to feed and bosses to please, or the Joneses to keep up with. Youthful idealism is good: it helps to detect hypocrisy. Young people aren’t going to have the spiritual power or even the desire to stay in a Church where the spiritual leadership– the priest, the matushka, the older people– are not themselves striving to go deeper with God. Spirituality is an attractive force, real spiritual direction draws people, so does ascetical life, humility, preaching from the holy fathers. Just look at St. Andrew’s in Riverside, California. Traditional Orthodoxy with all the leaves, and a continual harvest of fruit.

  5. If the EP. wants to build a de-nationalized orthodox church in North America… go ahead… stay away from the ethnic churches, they belong to the communities who they serve.
    If you want to be in a McOrthodox church then start your own. Too much heavy and dirty politics in this Pan – Orthodox corporate style real estate takeover. Just read some of the articles at BRUOC.ca.
    The EP needs to back off with his empire building and stop destroying communities/ and start living up to what is preached with respect to Christian love. There are many ways to build unity… first start with respecting those who built the churches to serve their community. We don’t need a North American Orthodox Corporate Conglomerate.
    The reason people have stopped going to church… because money has become their new god.

    • “Why can’t people express their culture outside the Church?”

      I agree with you. People are leaving because they are being swept away by Post-Modern culture. They are embracing the new age, and forgetting Orthodox Christianity.

      • The Orthodox Church for me , cannot be separated from my culture. It is an intricate part of it. Watch the videos and read the links we have been posting. It is about the struggle which is amongst us. Joining the E.P. has only brought grief. There are many ways of building unity. Investigate this site http://www.bruoc.ca/.

        • Sorry, that quote was mistakenly pasted from my comment above. I was responding to it. Sorry for the confusion, U.O.

  6. I totally agree with Fr. Steven’s analysis. There is however one thing I would change. I would move reason #5 “The lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is contributing to “The 60%”” up to #1. IF the purpose of the Church is not to proclaim the Good News (Gospel) of Salvation in Jesus Christ (and all that entails); and if the Church’s purpose is NOT to worship the Holy Trinity and pray for “the peace of the whole world, the good estate of the holy churches of God and the union of all” then all the other reasons do not matter. The bottom line is that the Orthodox Church in North America is in serious need of deep spiritual renewal, revival or whatever term you want to use. The Church’s foundation is supposed to be Jesus Christ, sadly enough the foundation of 90% of the Orthodox parishes in North America is the preservation of ethnic culture. This foundation is sand and as our Lord said a house built on sand cannot stand. Our leadership (bishops, priests) have no back-bone to stand up to the laity and challenge this ethnocentrism and in most cases are themselves supporters of this illness. As a result the parishes are deformed, dysfunctional and in some case down right heretical in their continued support of phyletism. It is time for our communities to actually BE Orthodox CHURCHES instead of Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Carpatho-Russyn, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian parishes. Jesus Christ will NOT compete with this and bless it.

  7. Peter Coologeorgen on

    I am nearing 60 and have been very involved in many aspects of church life (Parish Council, Sunday School, GOYA/YAL advisor, parent). I have finally retired from parish council due in much part, to the hypocrisy I see behind the scenes versus what we try to show in front of the altar. I agree with all five hypotheses however I think my comment will be a restatement or composition of all five hypotheses. As stated above by others, our religion is not the only religion losing membership. Many of the other established religions are also experiencing a decline. Kids I have spoken with say that our religion has little relevance in their day to day lives. They make a distinction between religion and faith. Religion was created by men who were more interested in maintaining ethnicity, suppressing women, retaining their superiority and controlling the masses. One person said to me, “If Christ came to Earth today and saw all these Christian faiths, He would say, “I gave one Word yet you created all these religions? Why?”.” They see the establishment as misstating Christ’s love of man and changing His words to support the establishment’s stated political purposes. Their college professors encourage the kids to challenge the establishment. The churches do little, if any, reach out to the kids to explain our tradition or dogma and show its relevance. The kids, like ourselves, have little faith in our leadership. The Church, as a religion, has become irrelevant to their lives. It has become a building of old people who are lead by hierarchs who seem aloof to the kids. A major issue on campuses today is the distinction between being politically correct (PC) and morally correct (MC). Sometimes the two conflict. I try to state that one the differences is that PC deals with life on Earth (temporal) while MC deals with life eternal. I have three grown sons. It seems to me that, as they progress in life (education, employment, marriage, children, etc.) the church is becoming more relevant but I am afraid this is due to indoctrination and not necessarily genuine interest. Thank you for your efforts and research.

  8. B "Romanos" B on

    My thoughts are that I could easily tell people the biggest problem with “the church” (be it orthodox or otherwise). It is exactly the life I have lived for almost 6 decades. I thought becoming orthodox would be the end of the insanity, though at times I think I am the sane person just fighting in a different venue. What I have yet to figure out is how to tell someone the truth, (myself especially), without the psychological filters of the subconscious mind interpreting the truth wrongly. When the truth hurts so deeply that running is easier, how many people are strong enough to stand and fight the evil that surrounds them. I would ask, 60% leave but of the 40% who remain, how many are truly remaining? For me, when everyone continues to tell me how wrong I am, these same people I look to for help, should I stay? It seems a whole lot easier to be “spiritual but not religous”. Today it’s all about take a pill you’ll feel better in the morning, not going to work in front of the judgement seat. The “Truth” and “God” must be more important than the pain.

  9. William Pressas on

    As a life long Orthodox, I have attended both Greek & Russian churches – I love the ethnic culture and people.

    But this is not why I am writing here; I would like to talk about our young people, they need and want a place where they could meet other people like them, you know people who love God, Family, Church just like them.

    The youth wants & needs an Orthodox sponsored web site where they can meet, talk (date and Marry) others just like them. There is no such place as of today. Please talk to your young people and ask them if they would want this sort of site (the answer will be a big YES). So Russian – Greek- and other Orthodox leaders, please sponsor this, push it, and you will see that the young will meet, date and marry other Orthodox people from this site and keep our churches growing.

    While I am on a roll, how about building Orthodox schools (copy the Catholic model, it works) grade schools through high school our kids will be around other Orthodox children, at these Catholic schools they hold mass every day and have religious class every other day. If we do not keep our youth involved with our church, they could end up at one of these Mc-other churches that goes after our young people. Thank you.

  10. I had the sacred honor of growing up in a Russian/OCA parish in a former industrial inner city in decline and the absolute madness I observed in the church during my formative years of teens and early 20s put me solidly in that 60% category. To address a few of the points above with my own personal experience:

    #1- As a “Russian” church, we had our fill of Slavonic, but as time went on and the ranks of Babas thinned out we transitioned more to english. The reactions ran the full spectrum: the old timers would get angry that the priest didn’t use Slavonic as much as “THEY SHOULD” and we even had one guy comment that we didn’t want the new, young Russian (from Russia) priest because “he spoke with an accent”.

    #2- This was the biggest for me. My particular parish, from 1990 to present, had no less than 8-10 different priests come and go because the various cliques within the church didn’t want them there for whatever reason. This one moved the cross from here to there, that one wanted to do something different with the Sunday School, the priest wanted to help at Bingo and we don’t want him…on and on it went in 2-4 year cycles before whichever priest was in town at the time was reassigned. How can you build a parish when there’s a revolving door at the altar, for no reason other than the sheer hatred of the people from one group to another? I contend that I have not seen people in my life more evil and full of hatred than those who go to this particular parish, and I say that rather publicly. And the gossip mill…perhaps that’s why the church exists in the first place: so everyone can come talk trash about each other.

    #3- I’ll take this and redefine “stewardship” as the administration and management of the church at both the parish and at the national level. My home parish had one individual that made some poor investments in the stock market and lost a few hundred thousand dollars of church money at one point in time…and while a few folks cared enough to bring it up, nothing happened. More importantly, look at the recent troubles in the OCA and the absolute chaos at the top: The Kondratick-Herman-Theodosius debacle does nothing to build trust with young people who are told to “kiss the Vladyka’s hand”. If we can’t trust the bearded men in black with funny hats to act in a Christ-like manner to run the church, then who can we trust?

    #’s 4 and 5 can be societal in nature, but still influenced by #’s 1-3. The focus should always be on Christ, the teachings of Christ, and the encouragement to do good in the world. Instead of focusing on Christ, we routinely see the internal quarrels of parish gangs defending their perceived fiefdoms, bishops gone wild, and the overwhelming concern on whether Sonja screwed up the perogies for the festival. As a 60%’er looking to find his way back into the church in the proper manner, witnessing all of the above may not have shaken my “faith” very much, but it certainly destroyed my trust in “religion”.

  11. Oleg Marinich on

    Father Steven’s hypotheses certainly ring true. We must also remember that the education our children are receiving, especially in colleges and universities, denigrates Christianity. Hence, our efforts must include an element of “de-programming,” if you will, in addition to re-focusing our children’s religious education as you suggest.

    I completel;y agree with the comments of Mr. Pressas regarding the necessity for building more Orthodox schools, K through HS. A few such schools exist, but far too few.

    I am a Russian Orthodox Christian and grew up in that environment. I have felt for a long time that there should be an American Orthodox Patriarchate and that the various Orthodox churches in the diaspora agree to re-organize under this Patriarchate — Would that cause a stir or what? I am not an authority on canon law, but I believe that the present situation with multiple Metropolitans and Archbishops within the same regions is in violation of canon law.

    Finally, I love ethnic festivals, foods, music, etc. and hope that these would continue within a unified American Orthodox Church.

    Thanks for putting up with me.

    • Oleg, you’re speaking to me, brat!

      Education is the key. Far too often, young people pick up Protestant theology despite being Orthodox, and it masquerades in their minds as “Christianity.” Then they are made weak, and succumb to atheism and agnosticism. They must be taught about Orthodox Christianity. They must LEARN the theology! They must be equipped with a strong spiritual life by the time they enter high school, and especially college.

      If we want to preserve our Russian Orthodox heritage and expression of our Faith, we must work together. First, we must fulfill our obligations to converts, and always be welcoming to outsiders. This IS the Orthodox tradition. (And it is very Russian I might add!) Then we must seek to live our culture as a way to Christ; a way in which He is made more present in our lives. We must strengthen our parishes, and ensure that we go to church to pray and have an encounter with God, instead of simply visiting an ethnic club–there is a difference.

      I speak Slavonic, and celebrate Russian Orthodoxy. It is something that we should keep. But this must be done in the love of Christ, and in a spirit of love. May we preserve our traditions, and welcome our new brothers and sisters to the faith.

      Khristos posredi nas!

  12. I am an Asian American convert to Orthodoxy and I find these issues about ethnicity fascinating because the church I grew up in, a Taiwanese Presbyterian Church, struggled with exactly the same issues. The immigrant generation wanted to preserve the Taiwanese language culture, while the younger generations left in droves. Today all of the Taiwanese American churches are dying because there are no more Taiwanese immigrating to the U.S. The churches that are surviving generally have two congregations under one roof — a Taiwanese-speaking, older congregation, and a separate, younger, English-speaking congregation with an American-born pastor.

    I now belong to a thriving English-speaking Romanian parish that was founded by a group of Romanians who recognized the importance of reaching out to the general American population. We now have a highly eclectic mix of people from all ethnic and religious backgrounds. We still have a lot of Romanian influence, but also have Russian, Byzantine, and other influences — all of which I appreciate. I love being able to worship God in multiple languages. But the most important thing is that we are have people of all stripes who come together because we love God and the one Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. Orthodoxy is such a valuable treasure, and it saddens me when I see parishes who want to keep it to all to themselves rather than share the joy with everyone else!

  13. Father,
    You present some very interesting points. If I might suggest, perhaps they do not go deep enough to the root cause. I would humbly submit for consideration that your points accurately outline symptoms of another cause. We teach our children how to dance, how to cross themselves, the ethnic language, and our ethnic traditions, but we do not teach them our theology. We tell them the “what” and the “how” but we do not tell them the “why”. I believe our young people are asking why and most in the church do not know or are not interested in the answer anymore. Our universities and Westerns churches can provide a myriad of answers to the question why. So they leave seeking an answer to that nagging question in hopes of finding meaning.

    Historically, Orthodox theology was taught by the repetition of liturgical tradition and the Sacramental life of the Church. It was common for people to attend daily or weekly vespers, Sunday Orthros and Liturgy, and the various Feast Days of the Liturgical Calendar. The repeated hymns and lectionary readings mutually reinforced the theology and over time these systematic connections created a tapestry of ideas that presented the dogmas of the Church as a whole. Orthodox theology was internalized as an experiential, as well as, a rational process.

    But today in America much has changed. Many Orthodox Churches do not have daily or weekly vespers and if they do, few parishioners attend. Rarely do people attend Orthros and many arrive for Liturgy sometime between the Small Entrance and the Reading of the Gospel. They no longer hear the systematic repetition of liturgical tradition. In those Churches with an ethnic heritage that hold their services in Greek, Russian, Arabic, or other native languages, the Americanized children and converts who do not know the language hear even less of the theology. As some Orthodox seminaries placed a greater emphasis on liturgics than theology, many of the clergy are not prepared to clarify the theological differences. The once beautiful tapestry, carefully woven together to present a continuity of Eastern theology, is now hidden.

    Changing the language and ethnicity will have little impact if we cannot answer the simple question “why” with the theology of our church.



    • David,

      The focus on education is paramount. This is a common theme in this thread, and in my opinion, the key to unraveling the mystery, and solving the problem. The most important thing we can do, is to teach the faith and instill a spiritual life. So long as we do this, ethnic or non-ethnic, The Church will be healthier.

  14. John Blackstone on

    Come on. Let’s stop this business of blaming people’s ethnicity or language for what is a common American issue whether the communities are Orthodox, Protestant, or Roman. Don’t like a church that uses Greek in the services? Then go find your local OCA Parish that just may have been started for that very reason. At least that is the case in my city. Then one can get into all the arguments for why the OCA are supposed to be the brand with the American Jurisdiction (very weak arguments as compared to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in my opinion). So long as there are Greeks (or Bulgarians, Russians, etc.) in our communities who have prayed for their entire lives in the Greek language, there will be a continued need for the services to be in the language of the people (Greek and English in our community). So long as there are people of various cultures (which is the real American “culture”) there will continue to be the need for people’s to express themselves as exactly who they are. Being a non-Greek, I must say that Greek culture and language is a very good, Christian, rich, and wonderful culture that lives and breathes the very Christian experience of community. So let’s stop this foolish attempt at blaming the culture of the people for young people leaving the Church. A crass, crude, self-seeking, anti-Christian individualism is at the very heart of why the young are leaving in my opinion. This has nothing to do with language or culture, especially of Greeks. In fact, Greek culture, with it’s emphasis on family and communal life, has most likely preserved many young people from leaving.

    • Peter Yancey on

      John, the problem is that the liturgies in Slavonic and Koine Greek are not the languages that the people speak. Using Slavonic or Koine Greek is as nonsensical as the RCC using Latin for so many centuries. The apostles preached in the language the people understood, and they didn’t set up services in Hebrew for the converts. Slavonic wouldn’t even exist accept for the need to evangelize the Slavs. The use of dead languages in the services of the Church is inexcusable.

      • Peter:

        “…the problem is that the liturgies in Slavonic and Koine Greek are not the languages that the people speak.”
        lol. No. They are intelligible to many people who actually consider The Church to be important in their lives. The type of people who grew up in an ORTHODOX culture. I am an ethnic Russian. Orthodox Christianity is in my culture, it is in my life more so than most Americans (not to my credit, but as a blessing to me). My ethnicity shielded me from the perversions of modern culture, and has enriched my life.

        Now, I would never, have never, forced anyone to learn/pray in either language as a prerequisite for conversion. As a matter of fact, I have worked hard to bring people into the faith. I have supported the local non-ethnic, English only parish for many years. I love the converts to the faith, and see in them a zeal that is true Orthodoxy.

        Also, building on John’s statement, many of the young people from this English only parish I mentioned have apostatized from the faith. (Lord have mercy. I hope and pray that they return.) The point is, that young people are leaving all types of parishes, and it is due to the popular culture around them, not ethnicity.

        But there is another point here that I will use your post to demonstrate: Why don’t you just leave us alone then? You are the one making a problem out of ethnicity. Not those of us like myself. You are stirring the pot, and making trouble with blanket statements and by forcing others to give up something pious that enriches their lives.

        Please re-consider your statements. May God bless you, and soften your heart.

        • Peter Yancey on


          I appreciate your comments, but it is not a matter of my “softening my heart.” Like it or not, this is the United States of America, and, God willing, when we have an American Orthodox Church, it’s liturgical language will be English. Just as Slavonic was created as a written liturgical language for missionary work among the Slavs, and Arabic and Greek are used in the Church in those regions of the world, English is what is needed here. And it will happen, sooner or later. You need to realize that Christ is for the whole world. “Why don’t you leave us alone?” Do you realize how silly this statement is? I could care less if you choose to remain in an ethnic ghetto, if that’s what you want. I was addressing the state of the whole Orthodox Church in America, not specifically your parish. May the Lord bless you as well my friend.

          • It’s not a silly question at all. You said that the use of what you term as “dead” languages is “inexcusable.” It seems to me, that today there is a concerted effort to ethnically cleanse The Church. Many in this country, both born into Orthodox families, as well as converts who were given their new found faith by ethnic Orthodox, have become activists against the celebration of ethnic heritage. You and I are having a violent agreement that English is absolutely necessary. The use of English in Orthodox Churches is nothing new. There NEED to be English-only parishes. The point I’m making is that there are those communities which serve specific congregations and perform specific ministries. Each parish is called to service in their own unique way. Many of us are blessed in that we have an Orthodox culture. This is something we celebrate, as an identity, and as a way of life in a world of Nihilism. Certain parishes minister to such people.

            I am against “ethnic ghettos” too. Every church must welcome new-comers and provide direction for them. This is the tradition of The Church. I agree with you on this point.

            It is my sincere hope, that the ethnic Orthodox Christians will provide an example, a template, for the formation of an “American Orthodoxy.” I have been blessed with the experience of visiting multiple parishes, of different jurisdictions and ethnic traditions. Thus far, I have seen irreverence, liberalism, nominalism, compromise, and other spiritually unhealthy attributes thriving in non-ethnic parishes, to a significantly greater extent than in the ethnic parishes. “American Orthodoxy” as it exists today will lead to deviations from the faith, as well as the nominalization and/or apostasy of the descendents of today’s zealous converts. The ethnic parishes on the other hand, I have found, possess a more reverent and traditional spirit. Not merely a spirit of cultural perpetuation, but a zeal for tradition, a spirit of reverence, a love of fore-fathers, and the adherence to The Church’s teachings over those of popular culture. Again, the problem of young people leaving The Church, which is a addressed at length in Fr. Steven’s article, is present everywhere.

            The non-ethnic parishes are losing young people too. If we do not attack the root cause of this problem, we will never solve it. The problem is education, and the instillation of respect and reverence for The Orthodox Church in young people. When the popular culture of this country grabs them, their devotion ceases, and they are caught in a trap that many never loosen. The Church in American must come to terms with this issue, and address it with bravery, open-mindedness, and understanding.

            I wish you well, and hope that together we can build up God’s Church. God save us.

  15. Topical essay – that’s for sure. It’s been said by others in the string but #5 –The lack of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ is contributing to “The 60%” should be front and center. We all need to look at ourselves in the mirror and take inventory of where we stand with Christ. It’s not easy and a life-long struggle. It’s next to impossible to urge someone to ” come and see” if there is no foundation for them to come and see.

    Someone else mentioned we need to be explain why we do the things we do in church. Fr Thomas Hopko has a wonderful lecture series called Worship in Spirit and Truth accessible on Ancient Faith Radio that is well worth listening and contemplating. He essentially goes line by line in the Divine Liturgy and explains the why:

  16. Fr. Stephen’s article has hit (most of) the nails on their heads. I would only add that there is not just a lack of “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but a lack also of a CORPORATE relationship with Jesus Christ. Christ ministered to the poor, the sick, the outcast — many other denominations do a better job of that than Orthodox parishes; I can count the Orthodox soup kitchens and shelters on the fingers of one hand. Christ wandered over a great deal of acreage, bringing his Word to the people — Orthodox outreach is practically nil in most cases. Christ treated everyone alike (“neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female”) — Orthodoxy has an insular and isolated approach to the larger society in many various ways. As just one example, in the Nation’s Capital, the Interfaith Council includes Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Jewish, LDS, Protestant, Roman Catholic, Sikh and Zoroastrian members — notice who’s missing? Often, whether the issue is opposing torture, working for peace or addressing violence in our society, I am the lone Orthodox in the room. While we have a small representation at the March for Life, we are not much seen when it comes to advocating for better prenatal care or infant-and-mother care. As St. John Chrysostom said, “If you don’t see the face of Christ in the beggar in the gutter, don’t look for Him at the altar.”

  17. Pingback: OCF leadership meets at OCA Chancery | OCL

  18. Fr. Stephen hit the nail on the head with this article! I would also add that our Lord Jesus Christ aimed His Gospel message at the prisoners, the poor, maimed, lame and blind, the widows and orphans. Then He sent out his 12 Apostles (Luke ch. 9) and then the 70 Apostles (Luke ch. 10) to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to the very same target audience. In the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) He commanded His Apostles to make more disciples, teaching them to DO (“observe”) the same things He taught the Apostles to DO. We Christians today are like the (religious) son who said to his father – “I will go into the fields and work,” but he didn’t go. The other (secular) son said – “I won’t go” but actually DID go and worked (Matthew 23).

    One fundamental problem, as illustrated by this parable in Matthew 23, is that under Islam and later under Communism, the Eastern Church has been forbidden to have any influence in society. Only Muslims and then Communists were allowed to evangelize or conduct social outreach. So today “is has become ought” – the way things are is the way we think things ought to be. In my missionary work in Russia, both before and after the collapse of the USSR, I’ve heard repeatedly that “we shouldn’t do evangelism” and “the government should take care of of the poor, the disabled and the elderly.” THIS IS THE PROPER DOMAIN OF THE CHURCH, not of the state! When I tell people how to reach out to the poor, the maimed, the lame and blind… most people even in the West today, as well as in the East, just give it a “Ho-hum, let the government do it” response. Let’s get off our sanctified posteriors and DO IT – http://www.Agape-Restoration-Society.org !

  19. Albert J. Baffy Jr. on

    I agree with many of the points made in this thread. The issues that are brought up by Fr. Steven are universal ones within all denominations in America and, to some degree, in Europe as well (especially Western Europe). I think all of the five issues he raises are relevant to the problem. Here are my comments: I have seen problems many times over in life that are caused by mere emotion when there is no balance with reason or moderation. Passions without balance can betray us. On the other hand there is the problem of apathy and complacency as well – again, a lack of balance. people need to be educated about the differences between the traditions of men (small “t”) and the Traditions of the Church (big “T”). Ask yourself these questions: What is the place of my parish in the Universal Church in history (not only in the past but in the future as well)? All traditions of men eventually change and their cultures die off in history. And, secondly: “What is my place, personally, in this Universal Church and God’s plan for it? The answer is in Holy Scripture and the teaching of the Church through theology. But HOW that is applied must be flexible in order to carry out that plan through the ages – the leaves of the tree must not be confused with the fruit. There must be a defined difference between human culture and Church Tradition to keep both keep the Tree of Orthodoxy alive as a whole. The Tree begins to suffer when the gardener only pays attention to one branch or one leaf without caring for the tree as a whole. I love my ethnic culture and I want to keep it. But I would give it up in a heartbeat if I thought that too much emphasis on it hurts the Church.

    We live in a time when the culture of America has become secularized. I have heard a theologian say that this probably began centuries ago with the development of a theology that emphasized individual piety – that there was no need for any congregation or ecclesial authority to mediate between God and the individual. On a fundamental level this is true – the relationship between Jesus and each believer is fundamentally personal. However, while that is true, the Church and its Mysteries are essential in nourishing that relationship, keeping it alive. This, along with evangelization, is the fundamental ministry of the Church. The problem with this theology of individuality, however, id that it led many to believe that all they needed was Jesus and the Bible – no need to go to church or receive teaching from anyone else. In my opinion, this practice makes a weak faith which cannot be sustained easily. It’s only a small step to give up commitment alltogether. It isn’t always very hard to convince people to believe in Jesus Christ – the Gospel is appealing on many levels. What is hard is to convince people to trust the Church and commit to it. Add to that that the American philosophy emphasized individuality from the very beginning of the founding of this country and you can see why we face the problem we have today.We will have to convince young people that they need the Church for their own benefit if we want to bring them back or convert them.

    • “We will have to convince young people that they need the Church for their own benefit if we want to bring them back or convert them.”

      Thank you for your post, Albert. You seem to be very well-informed, and seem to have thought this through. The indigenous culture of America de-emphasizes the role and authority of The Church, when it doesn’t despise it outright. The Orthodox Churches here in America are in need of a renewal, but not just some superficial renewal, or a strictly scholastic one, or simply a record reception of converts. Our Church in America needs a deep spiritual renewal, one guided by monasteries, devout bishops, tradition loving lay teachers, reverent priests, and the willingness to stand in opposition to the tides of Cultural Marxism, secularism, pluralism, and dishonesty.

  20. CLAIM #1
    The liturgical ebonics is fine, as well as occasional use of foreign phrases. Part of what makes Orthodoxy attractive is the sense of mystery involved. At the same time, I do think it’s a mistake to have most of a service in a foreign language. A few generations later, young people feel isolated from it in a way their grandparents didn’t.

    I don’t know Greek and come from the OCA (Russian customs), so it is a partial disincentive to typically attend a monastery I know where the service is 100% in Greek. But the culture is rich, so I am not rejecting that there can be an exception to have individual ethnic parishes in the US.

    BUT GOSH! If you DO have a mixed foreign language liturgy, make sure you at least offer classes for ADULTS to learn it, even if no one comes!

    Claim #2
    Yes this is a big problem, even when it is unusual for a parish. One bad example was when laity cursed at eachother over raising the price of pierogies without discussing it first. The church president left over this! Yet 90% of interactions are positive ones at church.

    Claim #3
    For some parishes there is simply a massive financial problem because there are no jobs. This is a major problem in historic OCA industrial heartland areas. I need a job myself!
    Yet I know of a huge Greek megachurch outside a major city with nonOrthodox employees. The Church is supposed to be a family, so there should be a spreading of the wealth and mutual aid – financial and organizational- to the impoverished Orthodox communities that are shuttering their windows!!!

    Claim #4

    Claim #5

    I have three more claims to consider:
    1. Assimilation is a natural process, even in other countries, 2. poverty in Orthodox regions pushing people out to other communities where they do not have the Orthodox family support networks, 3. lack of religious feeling in general in society, due to less of a material feeling of a need for it. This is good, since people live better, but the need is still there, fundamentally, because the same existential and vital questions that face us have faced own forefathers as well.


  21. I am Greek and am Greek Orthodox, living in Miami. Our church has done as much as it can to try and become “more attractive” to everyone. Making it mostly English some prayers are done in both English and Greek, having more programs, “racing” thru service so people don’t feel their time is being “wasted”… bottom line is this, you can make the service in whatever language you want, cut out the cantor or chior but if someone has zero interest in getting up and going to church they won’t. I’m tired of hearing blame the on language, why does the service have to be so long… this isn’t a drive thru window, it’s church and I would rather those who complain so much about everthing in service to just not go or find another place where they can FLY BY with their prayers. Leave the real religion to those who have an interest in service.

  22. This dates back to post World War II. Prior to the war, Christian religious communities reflected their urban ethnic communities. Social , government security programs had just begun. Ethnic community churches and charities filled that void. Many American boomer generation still retain higher DNA admixture than modern populations in homelands. Following WWII and Korea, the United States was the only industrial global power left undamaged. Resulting in historic economy and the GI bill or rights, allowed for return GI’s to relocate to new job opportunities and multi-ethnic suburban communities. This further fractured family and cultural ties in following generations to their immigrant past.

    Influence of heterodoxy, liberation theology and various other religious and secular cultural influences on the Orthodox youth have resulted in decline. What caused Protestantism to collapse was Sola Scriptura. Which lead to division, and ultimately abandonment. Orthodox youth are exposed to this decay everyday prior to college in high school. When attending college they are a lost ship at sea.

    What I recommend, I saw with a Jewish Orthodox Army Chaplain, when he wasn’t on National Guard duty, one of his main jobs was chaplain role for Orthodox Jews at the local university. Facility for Jewish Orthodox youth to gather socialize and receive mentorship Folks you can’t fire and forget these young people attending college aren’t cruise missiles. They are very young adults that need a lot of growing up.

    If they joined the military instead of college they would all be closely supervised, and limited to Cinderella Liberty Call, expiring at midnight. Parents paying for their educations also need to make sure they are paying for a degree or trade school that can be used for a career, not this useless garbage..

    If the churches and parents addressed this, I’m sure we would see more young converts to the faith as well.

  23. Cato the Elder on

    Orthodox Christian Fellowship (OCF) is the official campus ministry of the Assembly of Bishops. Take any metro area with a lot of colleges and ask the bishops in those areas the following questions. Start with Chicago for an example:

    How many chapters are there in Chicago? How many colleges are there in the Chicago Metro Area? How many of the Chapters have clergy advisors? How many know about each other? How many meet regularly?

    Do all the Orthodox Bishops who have parishes in Chicago (Greek, OCA, Antiochian, Serbian, Romanian, ROCOR, Ukrainian, etc.,) ever meet and discuss the OCF Chapters in the Chicago Metro Area? Indeed, do they ever meet to discuss anything?

    Supposedly they meet each other at meetings of the Assembly of Bishops, but do they ever get together to discuss pan-Orthodox cooperation in heir own area, or do they just meet once a year for Sunday of Orthodoxy services?

    If any of the readers of this website know any of these bishops, call them and ask them how much they cooperate with each other and what they are doing about Orthodox college students in their area.

  24. It is important to conduct worship services in English, which is the language of our youth. However, there is a place for the “prayer book English” of the King James Bible in the Church.

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